They're all around us from winter to spring: Coughing, sneezing, red-nosed co-workers who claim they're coming down with something. That something could mean you'll soon be following suit if you don't take the proper precautions to avoid and prevent illness.
Maintaining a hygienic workplace is certainly a challenge, but there are ways to avoid getting sick at the office.
First you have to understand the basics of catching the common cold or flu. It's disgusting to think about, but when you're face to face with someone with a contagious illness, it's the droplets from their mouth or nose ending up in yours that's actually the root of the problem, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Less often, you get sick from touching a surface or object that has a virus on it, and then touching your own mouth, eyes or nose, as stated in the CDC's advice on Stopping the Spread of Germs at Home, Work & School.
Most people know to wash their hands after shaking someone's hand or using someone else's keyboard or phone. In addition, many of us understand that we should avoid close, prolonged contact with anyone who has a cold, as recommended by the Mayo Clinic in its article on the common cold.
With the cold and flu season about to begin, generally running from November to April, here are five other pointers health organizations around the country offer for skirting illness.
Keep your distance: It's no wonder some people don't even know they're sick until they've got the full-fledged flu.
"You may be able to pass on the flu to someone else before you know you are sick, as well as while you are sick," the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) reports in its flu fact sheet. "Most healthy adults may be able to infect others beginning 1 day before symptoms develop and up to 5 to 7 days after becoming sick. Some people, especially young children and people with weakened immunity systems, might be able to infect others for an even longer time."
For these reasons, it's best to avoid exposure. For instance, where possible and appropriate, limit handshaking, especially at lunch meetings, Dr. Juan Carlos Baez of the Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital-Rahway, N.J., advised in an email to MNN.
If you know you're ill, the CDC recommends staying home at least 24 hours after your fever is gone. Flu-like symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue, the CDC reports. Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea. Others experience respiratory symptoms without a fever.
Take your pick: There's a reason flu shots are available on every corner. A yearly flu shot is the single-best way to prevent the flu, according to the CDC.
Last year was the first time there was enough vaccine to make it widely accessible, CDC Spokesman Jeff Dimond told MNN. Before that, it was only administered to high-risk groups, he said.
New this year in the flu vaccine lineup is the option of an intradermal shot that uses a smaller needle. It also requires less of the vaccine's antigen, or virus fighting formula, to be as effective as the regular flu vaccine shot, according to the CDC.
The downside of the shorter needle is that it often results in redness and soreness, Dimond said. He opted for the longer needle, which goes directly into the muscle with no resulting soreness, he said.
Also, if you haven't had a flu shot and later contract the flu, your doctor can administer an antiviral shot within the first 48 hours and "dramatically mitigate the effects of the flu," Dimond said.
Beware the common areas: "Think about the places multiple hands go," Dimond said. He listed door handles, the fax machine, office coffee pot, elevator buttons and the water fountain.
In addition, don't forget to wash up after touching shared books, food or food containers handled by others and hand or power tools, advises the Center for Hygiene & Health in Home and Community at Simmons College in Boston.
In its Tips to Prevent Colds and Flu in the Workplace (PDF), the hygiene and health center suggests office workers "[u]se a paper towel to open the bathroom door and dispose of the paper towel in the trash bin outside of the door." Furthermore, the center recommends using a paper towel to turn off the faucet and using hand sanitizer between washings.
Baez, who specializes in infectious diseases, told MNN via email that elbows work too on door handles and faucets.
Rhinoviruses, the cause of most common colds, can live up to three hours on your skin, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
The contagious viruses also can survive up to three hours on objects such as telephones and stair railings, the NIAID reports in its prevention tips for the common cold.
Proceed with caution: Word of warning about anti-bacterial products, such as soaps. "Keep in mind antibacterial soap is no more effective in killing germs than regular soap," the Mayo Clinic states. "Using anti-bacterial soaps may even lead to the development of bacteria that are resistant to the product's antimicrobial agents, making it harder to kill these germs in the future."
Antibacterial products don't even kill viruses, Dr. Elizabeth Scott, co-director of the Simmons health and hygiene center, said in an email to MNN. "That is why we recommend hand sanitizers that are alcohol-based."
Better yet, use products that "specifically state they will reduce germs and aid you in fighting the flu this season," Baez wrote.
Similarly, when trying to treat or prevent illness, be aware that antibiotics don't work for colds, the NIAID warns in its suggestions for common cold treatments. Colds are caused by viruses. Antibiotics should only be used for sinusitis or ear infections, the NIAID says.
Nonprescription cold remedies, including decongestants and cough suppressants, may relieve some of your cold symptoms but will not prevent or even shorten the length of your cold, according to the NIAID fact sheet.
Consider nature's best: Vitamin C may reduce the severity and duration of illness, but it hasn't been proven to cure or prevent infection, the NIAID cautions in its treatment fact sheet. "In addition, taking large amounts of vitamin C over long periods of time may be harmful. Too much vitamin C can cause severe diarrhea, a particular danger for elderly people and small children."
Another natural remedy, the herbal supplement echinacea, has received mixed reviews for its ability to treat and prevent the common cold, the NIAID reports. The same goes for zinc, believed to reduce the symptoms and duration of the common cold.
Honey has been shown to relieve coughing and soothe a sore throat, the NIAID states. And Simmons College hygiene and health center recommends drinking ginger or green tea to stimulate the immune system to fight off infections.
Have other suggestions for how to maintain a hygienic workplace? Leave us a note in the comments below.
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